Note: This post by Bram Moreinis (“Mr. M.”), and is featured on the Programming and Web Development Blog.
For the last month or so, most of my programming students and I have engaged in an intensive real-world team development project: creating a web-based application designed to allow English Learners to participate fully in the district’s Restorative Practice Student Survey.
We were offered this task during a meeting of the Restorative Practices Collaborative, a monthly gathering of teachers, administrators and community allies who move the district initiative forward. An annual impact survey had been under development by Lance Smith and Mika Moore, members of the UVM College of Education and Social Services Restorative Practices Research Team, and Miriam and Nijaza (see below) asked what would be done about our hundreds of students who are still learning English as a new language and would not be able to respond to a paper survey.
Someone else imagined a digital app to display each survey question and play audio translations so that students need only circle the answer without needing to read. Edmunds Elementary School principal Shelly Mathias knew me from our work preparing for an educators trip to Cuba for April break and tagged me for the project. The result was an application elementary and secondary school students could access from their mobile phones to listen to translations of survey questions in seven languages.
To get a sense of what we came up with how it works, view a narrated version of a video tour designed to explain the app to students who are not yet ready to respond to either written or spoken English.
After giving student survey-takers an opportunity to select their language for the remainder of the session, listen to a translated welcome message and, view a wordless version of the tour video, and choose their school level, the app moves students through instructions and questions using forward and back buttons
Students hear the audio, mark the survey where the question number matches, and move on. Student lead developer Hasan came up with the idea of giving students access to color-coded items (visited green, un-visited gray) in a pop-up menu (picture at right).
As an English Learner himself, Hasan was eager to pause his ongoing Cyber Security project to focus on developing this app, returning to the lab on his own time and working from home to meet an extraordinarily compressed timeline.
Hasan began by creating mock-ups in LucidChart. Weeks later, he keyed-in the first survey questions to the early version of the web application I was developing on the open source platform Drupal. (I specialized in Drupal as a web developer, and knew it offered core language translation capacity.)
I had planned to make this as my first Mobile App, supported by instructions from Code for BTV (Burlington’s volunteer coder group and part of Code for America) but given the time frame, they advised me to use what I knew best.
In an April 2nd video meeting with Lance Smith, English Learning Program Director Miriam Ehtesham-Cating, and Henri Sparks, Director of Equity, I shared Hasan’s mock-ups to give everyone a clear idea of what we proposed to build. We hastily developed a project plan to finalize the survey, contract with our Multilingual Liaisons and on-call interpreters to compose and record survey translations, embed these translations in an app students could access from library computers and mobile phones, and coordinate administration for a survey scheduled for the following month. It was a daunting task, but everyone got behind it fast.
Later, I met with Nijaza Semic, coordinator of the Multilingual Liaisons, to create specifications for audio files that would comprise app instructions, survey instructions, and 25 questions each for Elementary and Secondary surveys. Recordings would be chunked by question, English first, separated from the target language by the translator saying “Beep!” The large files would need to be split by students into separate files, and in some cases, joined to additional instructions like answer keys and app directions.
Our first group of files were Nepali (thanks to the early work of Multilingual Liaison Lal Pradhan). Ben stepped in as our first audio file processor, applying digital multimedia skills he developed as creator of a video gamer YouTube channel that generates monthly revenue from Google Adwords.
We were assisted in our work by UVM Researchers who “Alpha-Tested” the app once the Nepali translations were uploaded. Encountering an early version of the app, they asked questions and provided suggestions for improvements. We played a game (illustrated below): when I took a suggestion from one of the Alpha Testers, I coded the cell with the comments green; when it was worth further exploration, yellow; and when not feasible, gray.
While the Nepali Alpha Tests concluded, the other translators began sharing their work, creating a daunting backlog of audio file splitting and processing that was beyond the capacity of Hasan, Ben and I to complete in the two weeks we had left. Ben taught two other students to do the initial audio file parsing and focused himself on post-processing. Hasan, meanwhile, trained his fellow student Josiah (right) to create new translation pages and upload audio files.
Building pages on the app was tricky work. Each page had seven translations, a menu item listing, and a URL, and the translations themselves had no English once they made their way to the uploaders. The file names and folder names had to be perfectly tracked. It was painstaking work.
Joe, however, is a quick study in web content creation, as he has been spending his year on another service learning project, creating a new WordPress website for Vermont’s Career Technical Student Organizations for state coordinator Susan Ladd. He’s used to being given a complex set of instructions and a huge stack of work to apply them to, and became our web lead for the project.
The opportunity for my students to participate in interdependent team development to meet a real need in their community, with all the pressure and energies that hard deadlines and strict requirements dictate, was invaluable and will stay with all of us. We combined the enthusiasm and commitment of IT service learning with a full application of Agile Project Management, a set of workplace practices we had been building up to throughout the year. Below are descriptions of the team tasks we performed during two weeks of intensive development.
Following the Agile development model, we began each day with a “standup” (though given the configuration of our lab we stayed seated) to review our backlog using a Work Breakdown Sheet. We assessed the status of each translation set. Team members claimed pieces of work they would strive to complete that day, and worked with independent focus for the next few hours. Below is a screenshot of that sheet in the final days of our development.
On May 9th, the final day of survey administration (and pilot date for our app at Burlington High School and CP Smith Elementary), I attended a presentation by the Student Engagement and Action Committee. These Burlington High School students, in alignment with the district Restorative Practice initiative, had created, administered, and analyzed their own culture and climate survey and were reporting out their findings to the BHS faculty.
During an RP connecting exercise before the presentation, I met for the first time some of the translators (Lal, Noor and Chacha) I had been exchanging files and frantic messages with over the past weeks. We exchanged hearty handshakes and improvement ideas for Version 2.0 next year.
Here’s our first testimonial, from Rose Wall, afterschool director at CP Smith Elementary:
“You did a wonderful job with the web app. I used it with one 4th grade student. He used a Chromebook and used the Vietnamese translation, while we read the questions to the rest of the 4th graders.
It took a few moments to figure out the app, so he got behind in the questions, but then once he got the hang of it, he sped right through and was very successful. He didn’t give me much feedback on it, but was focused, listening, and understood all the questions/prompts.
Well done! I don’t think the survey would have been accessed if not for your team’s hard work.“
Report from Jill Jacobelli, BHS EL teacher:
“Many students found this really helpful for understanding the questions. Every student I asked said listening to the survey was helpful [even if they had some ability to read English].“
I’ll end with a thank-you note from Miriam:
“I think this is AWESOME! It is amazing to hear about how your team came together to make this happen, and in a way that energy is representative of the larger team that helped the more accessible and equitable survey (no accident for this group!) become reality….
THANK YOU again for all your work, and for the work of your team. Working together, our whole group did something really COOL that I think will be a model for how to make many things accessible to English Learners moving forward.“